Wondering where to eat and drink in Oaxaca City? Need to decipher that menu in Spanish? Here’s everything you need to know to eat and drink like a local in this foodie’s dream location.
You could dedicate an entire week-long trip to tasting all of the culinary delights Oaxaca has to offer and you still wouldn’t get through even half of them. From the 7+ types of mole sauce to the variety of edible insects, the food here is deliciously unforgettable.
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Everything you know about Mexican food will be long forgotten once you experience Oaxaca. A unique gastronomical world thrives within the colonial city and its surrounding villages. With an abundance of regional ingredients and pre-hispanic recipes, a completely different side of Mexican cuisine exists here. One that simply is not available far from the source.
Did you know that traditional Mexican food was one of the first (along with French cuisine) added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage? Want to come find out why? Keeping reading and you’ll know exactly what to eat and drink in Oaxaca.
Don’t look here for giant burritos and taco Tuesdays. In fact, the menus are probably full of words you don’t know.
To help out, we’ve taken on the very difficult task of eating as much as possible in Oaxaca, while taking note of the highlights for our readers. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. So, read on to find out where to eat and drink in Oaxaca.
Table of Contents:
- Oaxaca Food and Drink Basics
- Best Places to Eat in Oaxaca
- Best Places for Drinks in Oaxaca
- Vegetarian and Vegan Food in Oaxaca
Oaxaca Food and Drink Basics
Before we begin, let’s go over some of the essentials of comida Oaxaqueña (Oaxacan food), most of which stem from pre-hispanic times, even before the ancient ruins of Monte Alban were built.
Chapulines are small fried grasshoppers seasoned with garlic, lime, chili peppers, and salt, and eaten in Mexico since the time of the Aztecs. They are usually a snack purchased in the markets or from street vendors. Sometimes they are used in more traditional dishes as well, even as a purée. Michael was hesitant to try them at first, but once he did he became an instant fan of this salty snack.
Mole is a sauce made from a mix of chili peppers, tomatoes, spices and other ingredients depending on the type of mole. Although you’ll hear a lot about the 7 moles of Oaxaca, there are actually many more styles. The most famous is mole negro, which is made with chocolate. Red, green, and yellow are other popular versions. Commonly served over chicken and rice or as the sauce for enchiladas. Making mole is an art form in Mexico and this cooking class will teach you how.
Quesillo is my favorite Mexican cheese. Moist, stringy, and tangy. It tastes delicious cold, but is best melted in hand-made tortillas with a few epazote leaves (an herb) or flor de calabaza (squash blossom). It’s called quesillo in Oaxaca, but known as Oaxaca cheese everywhere else in Mexico. And nowhere else does it taste as good.
Tlayudas are like giant tostadas, although some people refer to them as “Mexican pizzas.” They consist of the tlayuda base (a very large toasted corn tortilla), spread with a layer of asiento (pork lard) and beans, topped with lettuce or cabbage, tomato, onion, quesillo, and whatever topping you choose. A popular topping is tasajo (strips of dry, smoky beef somewhat similar to beef jerky).
Tamales in Oaxaca are different than in the northern parts of Mexico because they are wrapped in banana leaves, which gives them a distinct flavor. Quick side note: Believe it or not, the singular of tamales is just tamal; not tamale as often used in the US. A tamal is corn dough stuffed with a filling and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The most popular filling in Oaxaca is pollo con mole negro (chicken with black mole).
Memelas are like thick corn tortilla cakes which are heated on a very hot comal (flat griddle) and topped with asiento, refried beans, queso fresco (a type of fresh cheese), and salsa. Commonly eaten as a snack or light lunch. Sold along sidewalks or in the markets.
Mezcal is the locally produced liquor made from different types of agave plants. Tequila is actually a type of Mezcal that is made only from blue agave. But other mezcal is painstakingly produced with passion and patience. Served in a shot glass and sipped, Mezcal can be accompanied by orange slices and salt mixed with chili salt and ground agave worms. But for the best, just sip it straight and let the flavor take over. One of the highlights of our visit was exploring the mezcal capital of the world. Don’t miss out on enjoying this wonderful and complicated spirit.
Chocolate de Agua & Pan de Yema is a pair made in heaven. Chocolate de agua is hot chocolate made with chunks of Oaxacan chocolate (cacao, cane sugar, cinnamon, and almonds) heated up in water and whisked until frothy with a traditional wooden molino. It’s usually served in beautiful clay bowls with a roll of pan de yema (a sweet bread made with egg yolk). This Food of the Gods Walking Tour will teach you everything you need to know about this sacred drink.
Tejate is a pre-hispanic drink popular among the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec people of Oaxaca. It’s made from corn, cacao, mamey (local fruit) pits, and a flower called rosita de cacao. You’ll see ladies mixing huge batches of it in large vats with their entire arm.
Agua de Chilacayote is a type of agua fresca (fresh water) made with a local squash that’s similar in texture to spaghetti squash. It also has pineapple juice, cane sugar, and cinnamon. If you aren’t familiar with aguas frescas, they are incredibly refreshing and sometimes sweet drinks served almost anywhere from street vendors to the nicest restaurants.
Best Food in Oaxaca
We love to do our research before visiting places. And when we looked for places to eat and drink in Oaxaca, the same handful of restaurants kept popping up all over the internet. But once we were here, we discovered these hot spots were usually full of tourists, overpriced, and underwhelming. Instead, we ate at places local residents recommended and frequent.
Hands down, the best place to try almost all of the local specialties in one spot is Oaxaca City’s markets, especially 20 de Noviembre. Everything on the list above can all be found here for much less than the tourist traps lining the main plaza and the walkway to Santo Domingo church. Seriously, make sure you have a few meals at the different stalls here to get a taste of what the local food is like. And don’t be ashamed to ask for recommendations either.
Tlayudas El Negro is the absolute gold-standard for tlayudas. Not only are they ridiculously cheap, $40 pesos, but they’re enormous and filled with tons of gooey quesillo. We often shared one because they are so big. Agua frescas with free refills are only $15 pesos. (No alcohol served here.) I loved that they had 3 different types of salsa on the table and lots of limes! Flavor city! They have several locations in Oaxaca and the BEST service in the city.
Casa Taviche serves a delicious 3 course comida del dia (meal of the day) for $85 pesos. They were quick to accommodate my vegetarian diet and prepared a local favorite of molotes de plátano (savory banana dumplings). The meal consisted of a tortilla soup with tomato broth, molotes de plátano (tuna patties for Michael), and a sweet corn cake for dessert. Price includes a freshly made drink. We got an agua de poleo (local herb) infusion that was delicious! All of this for less than $5 USD. Oh, and the place itself is very cute too!
Oaxaca’s delicious ice cream is famous throughout Mexico. And, the best place to treat yourself to the local specialty is Plaza de la Danza. It’s a quiet plaza a short walk away from the bustling Zocalo. Depending on what street you take, you’ll need to either go up or down the steps to get to the fountain shaded by trees and surrounded by ice cream shops. The flavor to try in Oaxaca is nieve quemada con tuna (burned milk with prickly pear fruit). Yes, the translation is just bizarre so take my word for it and try it.
If you want to try a little bit of everything and learn more about the cuisine from a local, you should take a walking food tour of Oaxaca’s specialties.
These next two places are incredible – so they have to go on this list of best places to eat and drink in Oaxaca. But full disclosure, they aren’t really authentic Oaxacan cuisine. But we want to let you know anyway because of how amazing they are.
We did not discover Tastavins until the end of our time in Oaxaca, which is probably a good thing because otherwise we would have had way too much wine. Tastavins has some local food, but the real treat here is the wine. For $30-50 pesos ($1.50-$2.50 USD), you get a glass of wine served with montaditos (tapas). No, that is not a typo. We had a delicious glass of wine from Baja California, bread with tomato and garlic, and a slice of tortilla española. They also have really good salads and pasta. I wish there was a Tastavins in every city in Mexico!
After a week of eating my fill of street food and preparing delicious Oaxacan meals with local products at home (poor me), I started to get my usual pizza withdrawals and needed to ease my cravings. This is how I found Boulenc, a bakery that specializes in sourdough. Most importantly, they have a restaurant next door where they use that sourdough to make delicious pizzas for around $100+ pesos each. And yes, they serve wine. You can also order the pizzas to-go.
To get a taste of the local culture and food while experiencing traditional Oaxacan songs and dances, try the popular Guelaguetza Dinner Show.
Best Drinks in Oaxaca
Bar la Giralda is as authentic of a Mexican cantina as you can get. I say this because authentic cantinas do not allow women to enter. And at Bar la Giralda they’ve allowing women in since the 1970’s. Yay for equal drinking rights! The best part about visiting this cantina is that the servers are nice and attentive. They serve a free individual appetizer with each round of drinks you order. Unfortunately, none of the little dishes were vegetarian, so Michael ended up pretty full after a few rounds. I ended up very tipsy and starving.
Don Chato’s, or Cantina El Salón de la Fama, is a cantina-style bar complete with swinging doors. The drink to get here is a hangover cure called suero – a cold beer with lots of lime juice and salt. We drank it even though we weren’t hungover because it’s very refreshing after a long day of walking around in the Oaxaca heat. You always get complimentary peanuts as well. Don’t be afraid to call for service when you need it.
Santísima Flor de Lúpulo is a local nano brewery with rotating taps. Their beer was spectacular and a total surprise to find in Mexico, where craft beer is severely lacking (Colorado and California have spoiled us). A hazy guava IPA made Michael very happy. They also have a deli next door, which you can order from at the bar.
For amazing views without the crowds, visit Magnolia Rooftop Cafe. This rooftop restaurant has a beautiful nighttime view of the churches in Plaza de Danza. They serve burgers and Oaxacan snacks like empanadas (fried quesadillas) with chapulines. They also have mezcal and other drinks. Open Tuesday-Saturday evenings.
The best non-alcoholic drinks can be found inside of the markets, with our favorite spot being the Aguas Frescas de Doña Casilda. They have about 15+ different types of aguas frescas, including the most popular, horchata con tuna and agua de chilacayote.
Vegetarian and Vegan Food in Oaxaca
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can still enjoy some of Oaxaca’s traditional cuisine by making some of the following adjustments or requests. Check out our Guide to Eating Vegan and Vegetarian in Mexico for tons of tips and advice from a life-long vegetarian (and Mexican)…me!
One of my favorite typical foods is an empanada (large quesadillas) with quesillo and flor de calabaza or mushrooms. Ask for tlayudas and memelas sin asiento (without pork lard). Some places in the Mercado de 20 Noviembre also add champiñones (mushrooms), nopales (cactus), or flor de calabaza (squash blossom). The Oaxaca vegetarian options in this market are vast and we constantly recommend it to eat and drink.
Try the torta de quesillo (no mayo or cheese and extra avocado for vegans) and fruit salad at Titos Tortas near el Zocalo. One of our favorite street foods in Mexico is the elote (corn on the cob with lime, mayo, cheese, and chili pepper) and esquite (same thing in a cup). Just make sure they haven’t added any meat to flavor the boiling water, and if they have, walk down to a cart with elote asado (grilled corn). There’s usually a way to order vegetarian food in Oaxaca.
La Biznaga near Santo Domingo church has some good vegetarian and vegan options available on their menu.
Avoid the mole (cooked with chicken broth and fried in lard) and tamales (made with lard). Hierba Dulce is a plant-based restaurant that has serves a variety of vegan moles and specializes in vegan Oaxacan food. The refried beans in Oaxaca are typically not fried in lard (like they are in northern Mexico), but always make sure to ask before ordering.
You can also learn how to shop for and prepare vegan Oaxacan food and make delicious meals at your Airbnb (get $40 off here). I cooked so many mouth-watering dinners during our stay!
Oaxaca: Your Tastebuds Will Thank You
All in all, visiting Oaxaca would not be complete without having tried at least some of the unique dishes mentioned above. You’ll quickly find out that finding a place to eat and drink in Oaxaca is as essential as the sightseeing. The best part is that pretty much any restaurant will have delicious food. Venture out of your comfort zone and eat and drink in Oaxaca as much as possible!
If you’re headed to Oaxaca, you should also check out:
- The Ultimate Guide to Oaxaca City
- The Top 3 Markets to Explore in Oaxaca City
- Visiting the Monte Albans Ruins in Oaxaca
- Ocotlan vs Tlacolula: Experience the Best Village Markets
- How to Visit Oaxaca’s Petrified Waterfalls and Arbol del Tule
What’s your favorite thing to eat or drink in Oaxaca? Let us know in the comments below!